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FOCUS: A New Level of Grifting by the President
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=51459"><span class="small">Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker</span></a>   
Friday, 06 September 2019 10:53

Toobin writes: "Before Donald Trump became President, some purportedly knowledgeable students of the Constitution had never even heard of the emoluments clause. (Me, for example.)"

Hosting next year's G-7 meeting at his Doral golf resort, in Florida, would mark a new level of grifting by President Trump. (photo: Massimo Dallaglio/Alamy)
Hosting next year's G-7 meeting at his Doral golf resort, in Florida, would mark a new level of grifting by President Trump. (photo: Massimo Dallaglio/Alamy)


A New Level of Grifting by the President

By Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker

06 September 19

 

efore Donald Trump became President, some purportedly knowledgeable students of the Constitution had never even heard of the emoluments clause. (Me, for example.) This heretofore obscure provision of Article I had its origin in the distant mists of American history, when representatives of the young republic were seen as vulnerable to temptations offered by the wealthy grandees of Europe. As a result, the Framers decided to ban American officials from receiving any gifts or money—that is, emoluments—from foreign governments. It was a simple rule, easy to comply with, and the clause generated few controversies and even fewer court cases for more than two centuries.

But Trump brought the emoluments clause to life. After he refused to divest his real-estate holdings upon becoming President, his hotels became a magnet for foreign visitors seeking to curry favor with his Administration. A former Trump Organization official recently estimated that foreign governments spent more than a million dollars at Trump’s businesses in 2018, mostly at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (Since Trump was inaugurated, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been good customers there.) But the money flowing from foreign governments to the President’s businesses could soar if he makes good on his apparent plan, which he announced last month, to host next year’s G-7 meeting at his Doral golf resort, in Florida. If the deal comes to fruition, the conference would mark a new level of grifting by the President, and it appears consistent with a new brazenness in his efforts to profit from his office. (Zach Everson’s newsletter follows issues relating to Trump’s use of the Presidency for financial gain.)

Some of Trump’s efforts may have run afoul of an even more obscure provision of the Constitution: the so-called domestic emoluments clause. This section of Article II states that the President “shall not receive” any emolument, other than his fixed salary, from “the United States, or any of them.” Again, the idea behind this provision is similar to the one underlying the foreign clause: the Framers didn’t want any part of the government, or any state, trying to influence the President by funnelling money to him. This is precisely the problem with Vice-President Mike Pence’s recent trip to Ireland, where he wasted many hours and untold thousands of dollars of government money, to stay at a Trump golf resort that was nearly two hundred miles away from his meetings with Irish leaders, including the Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin. (The Administration’s explanations for how Pence came to stay at the hotel have been unconvincing, to say the least.) Can anyone seriously doubt that the reason Pence stayed at Trump’s hotel was to please the boss, at the taxpayers’ expense? And that’s precisely the ill that the constitutional provision was designed to prevent.

Since practically the day that Trump took office, his political opponents have taken to the courts to protest what they characterize as his violations of the emoluments clauses. The cases have generally gone poorly for the President’s adversaries, although none has been definitively resolved. A panel of the Fourth Circuit threw out an emoluments case brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked the legal standing to sue. A similar case in a New York federal court met the same fate. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., held that a group of members of Congress, led by Senator Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, did have standing to bring an emoluments case, but the Trump Administration has appealed, and that case is stalled, too. Another possibility for resolution of the emoluments issues, of course, is for Congress to use it as a basis for impeachment. As with other potential grounds for impeachment, such as obstruction of justice, it awaits a determination by the Democratic leadership in Congress about whether to pursue it.

In all, the emoluments issue represents a good illustration of Kinsley’s law, named for the journalist Michael Kinsley, who observed that the scandal isn’t what’s illegal, but what’s legal. What society chooses not to punish tells you the most about the prevailing moral standards of any age. According to an estimate by the Center for Responsive Politics, various domestic political groups and committees have spent nearly twenty million dollars on events at Trump’s properties.

Unlike government expenditures, there’s no question that these payments are legal. But in a country that purports to demand that its politicians work for the public interest, not for their private gain, Trump’s behavior is an outrage. At this point, it seems unlikely that the courts, or even the Congress, will do anything about it. The only hope for a check on Trump, and for his removal, is the voters.

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